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Food For All

UNLV researchers explore how plant genes, food rescue, and financial savvy could help feed humankind.

Research  |  Oct 2, 2018  |  By T.R. Witcher
Plate with food made out of money

According to the Food Aid Foundation, 795 million people globally suffer from hunger. (Josh Hawkins / UNLV Creative Services)

The most studied resource in a desert community like Southern Nevada is probably water — how much of it we have, how to put it to more productive and efficient use. But researchers across disciplines at UNLV are studying another critical resource that is, surprisingly, in short supply — and not just in the Mojave.

“I was thinking in the U.S.A., food should never be a problem, but we have so many people going hungry,” said scientist Jeffery Shen. The Bioinformatics and Molecular Biology Lab head is looking to tackle the issue by making crops more drought tolerant, thereby increasing their yields.

Globally, 795 million people suffer from hunger — more than double the U.S. population, according to the Food Aid Foundation. And in the United States in 2016, 15.6 million out of 126 million households (12.3 percent) were food insecure, meaning they didn’t have adequate access to or resources for the types or quantities of food that sustain a healthy lifestyle, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

“There’s a huge connection between food insecurity and health,” said public health professor Courtney Coughenour, who researches the effectiveness of local food rescue efforts. In addition to food insecurity’s association with adult health issues including diabetes, heart conditions, and depression, Samantha To (a graduate student working with Coughenour) noted its connection to children’s health issues including higher levels of aggression, anxiety, and asthma.

“It’s an ethical problem when you have a surplus of food and people are hungry,” Coughenour said. “It’s public health’s role to recognize that there’s a gap there, and if we can do something to fix it, we should fix it.”

UNLV Lee Business School professor Ian McDonough sees another potential fix — from an economic perspective. If people can gain the education they need to better manage what financial resources they have — however large or small those may be — they may be able to escape food insecurity entirely.

Plant Power

One way to make headway on feeding people adequately is by increasing crop yields. Plants must be able to handle stress, whether biotic stress (like bacterial, fungal, and viral diseases) or abiotic stress (like weather). According to Shen, abiotic stress can depress the yields of major crops by as much as 70 percent.

Through grant support from the USDA, Shen and his team of visiting researchers, postdoctoral fellows, graduate students, and undergraduates study the stress properties of rice genes, in the hopes that insights into rice’s genetic code could increase yields for other major crops such as wheat, maize, sorghum, barley, and millet. These plants sense and respond to environmental stresses using biological circuits more delicate and complicated than those in cell phones. Shen’s lab focuses on a group of specialized genes that encode so-called “finger proteins.” These proteins operate molecular switches on DNA to control gene expression, which he likens to a light switch flipped on or off.

Generating and analyzing big data on the rice’s genetic composition, Shen and his team were able to identify the gene family that controls the plant’s development and response to environmental stresses and, hence, the crop’s yield and resistance to drought and other unfavorable growth conditions. Understanding this genetic code could lead to a variety of breakthroughs, Shen said, whether it’s further increasing Vitamin A contents in “golden rice” to protect against blindness in the 120 million people who are deficient in the nutrient or creating more drought-tolerant grasses that can use less water in a park.

And Southern Nevada, though not a mecca for rice crops, may end up having something particularly special to help fight against abiotic stress: the creosote bush. While Native American communities have long used the desert shrubs as a medicinal agent, it may have a hidden agricultural application as well. Shen is working on figuring out why the creosote bush is so hardy.

“Creosote plants are treasures to me,” Shen said. “They can handle all kinds of stress: drought, heat, cold, disease, horrible soil. The plant survives. In the summertime, temperature in the desert can reach 130 degrees. Most plants would get killed, but the creosote bush survives.”

Banking on Food Rescue

According to an article in U.S.A. Today, one in seven Americans relied on food banks in 2014. Coughenour works with Three Square, Southern Nevada’s only food bank, to study the issue of food insecurity in the region.

According to Three Square, 13.4 percent of Clark County residents are food insecure, and when you include the three rural counties that are also part of Three Square’s service areas — Esmeralda, Lincoln, and Nye — the percentage ranges from 13.3 to as high as 15.2. That means 50.2 million meals are needed in these areas each year to close the gap between food need and what’s provided by federal programs and other charitable organizations.

Historically, Three Square has picked up unused but still fresh food, bread, and dairy products and partnered with dozens of community organizations throughout the city to distribute that food through food pantries. But when the food bank switched over to a new model where food pantries themselves would interface with local grocery chains to collect food, Coughenour was curious to see if the partners would maintain or increase pickups.

Coughenour conducted stakeholder interviews with Three Square and agency partners and found that when agency partners worked directly with grocery stores, they were able to increase the amount of food donated—a result of developing relationships with each other. Not only did the grocery stores get a better sense of the types and amounts of foods the agencies would appreciate by working directly with them, Coughenour said, but they also got to hear stories from their agency partners about how the donations were improving the lives of community members. Fostering goodwill, she found, resulted in an increased desire on the part of the grocery stores to give back to the community.

Meanwhile, To researched a pilot program at Aria Convention Center that donates untouched food from the convention center. Some 60 percent of edible food gets thrown out nationwide, she said; locally, estimates of attendees at conventions are often higher than the actual turnout, leading to considerable food waste here. But according to her master’s thesis, “between August 2016 and July 2017, (Aria’s) convention center donated 54,460 pounds of food, creating approximately 45,383 meals.”

The people To interviewed at MGM Resorts International, parent company to Aria, expressed pride about the pilot program. “It gives a sense of community and connection between the higher-ups and folks who are food insecure,” To noted.

Cents-ible Choices

While his colleagues study ways to address existing food insecurity, McDonough searches for the reasons people become food insecure in the first place.

McDonough and his colleagues at Southern Methodist University are trying to work out an anomaly: A USDA study titled “Statistical Supplement to Household Food Security in the United States in 2016” has shown that 35.7 percent of households under 130 percent of the federal poverty line (approximately $31,980 for a family of four) were food insecure. But even when households were over the poverty line, 12.2 percent of households were worried that they would run out of food before getting money to buy more, the report indicated.

In other words, poverty is not explaining everything. Some impoverished people were food secure, while some people who weren’t impoverished remained food insecure. McDonough’s research found that financial capability — and more specifically, financial behaviors — play a “sizable role in mitigating household levels of food insecurity.”

McDonough and his collaborators used a financial capability survey to gauge whether survey respondents set financial goals, track their spending and bills, and have basic financial confidence. They found that families who were knowledgeable about financial matters could make more effective use of financial resources — including choices around buying food — even if those resources are limited.

“If you take our results to in fact be causal and then generalize to the broader U.S. population, then increase financial capability a certain amount—say, by educating individuals on the importance of budgeting, tracking spending, paying bills on time, reviewing bills for accuracy, and setting financial goals—this could reduce the number of food insecure households in the U.S. from 17.5 million to 14.6 million, a reduction of 2.9 million,” McDonough said.

McDonough suggested tapping into the federal government’s existing Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program Education, or SNAP-Ed, which aims to educate food stamp recipients about good nutrition and getting the most bang for their buck.

McDonough also studies the difference in food insecurity rates among white, nonwhite Hispanic, and black households. USDA data indicate that while the percentage of food insecure white households is relatively low (9.3 percent), the insecurity rate for black and Hispanic households is much higher (22.5 percent and 18.5 percent, respectively).

However, McDonough is quick to point out that disparities, though important, aren’t the whole picture. “For example,” he said, “if my goal was simply to eliminate the disparities in food insecurity, I could make everyone equally hungry. The disparity is gone, but clearly, in terms of economics, that’s a horrible outcome.”

The disparities in food insecurity rates, McDonough indicated, are more a snapshot taken in a particular moment; they don’t tell us much about how families transition into and out of food insecurity over time. He’s found that, when viewed over a longer period of time — in households with children from kindergarten through eighth grade, for instance — the ability for Hispanics to move out of food insecurity into categories of greater food security and to stay there is on par with whites.

On the other hand, his research also shows that “black households, relative to white households, are 17.4 percentage points less likely to be classified as high food secure, conditional on initially being classified as food insecure,” from the time a child starts kindergarten to the time that child reaches eighth grade. This means black households have lower upward mobility through the food security distribution, he said. Similarly, blacks also have higher downward mobility; they are “17.8 percentage points less likely to still be classified as high food secure once their child makes it to eighth grade,” McDonough said.

This means policymakers need to think about not just pulling households — especially black households — out of food insecurity; they need to think about keeping the households out of it to begin with.

“I feel comfortable that we’ve uncovered disparity in mobilities, but the next step is to try to understand if we can explain why these disparities in mobility dynamics exist,” McDonough said. “If we’ve established there are divergences in mobility, what are the determinants of these gaps? Perhaps financial capability is one mechanism that can explain why a household makes it to the top and stays there.”